How to be Compassionate While Holding Employees Accountable


The last couple of years have been rough on everyone, albeit we didn’t all endure the same experiences. As workplaces are returning to normal or a new normal, leaders have been faced with managing people in new work environments. One of the struggles has been managing employees to allow for flexibility and compassion without compromising productivity or accountability. Leaders often view compassion and accountability as being on opposite ends of the spectrum, but in reality, you need to use a strategy of compassionate accountability to lead effectively.

Compassion is an awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the desire to relieve their suffering. Positive Psychology says that compassion involves elements of empathy, love, and care. Compassionate expressions aim at alleviating or sharing the troubles of others. Accountability is answering for the outcomes of our decisions, behaviors, and actions.

Knowing that employees have a lot going on and understanding what might still be occurring in their lives, can you still hold them accountable? Should you change performance expectations or offer flexibility if you have no leeway to do either? Those kinds of questions seem to put compassion and accountability at odds, but being compassionate does not mean that you have to forgo accountability or lower performance standards. Managers need to think about combining the two, how they can be thoughtful and caring towards their employees while keeping their standards high. You do not need to be tough on your team to get them to produce. As anyone on the receiving end of a professional scolding can attest, it isn’t a motivating experience. It may get you immediate results on a single task or two, but it isn’t a sustainable approach, and it has long-term consequences to morale and job satisfaction. You can demonstrate compassionate accountability by keeping high-performance expectations while being reasonable, considering what employees need emotionally and mentally, and offering flexibility when you can give it.

If you have a particular employee with recurring performance issues, have an open discussion about the concerns and how you can identify and address the root cause. Ask what you can do to help and support them. When you are approaching someone with compassion, you both want the same thing. Once you figure out if the issue is motivation, process, burnout, lack of training, scheduling, or something else, you can fix the root cause of the performance issue. Be transparent about the job requirements and expectations during this conversation, focus on being factual, and not placing blame or passing judgment. Ask the employee if the items discussed could be resolved if they have any other concerns or barriers to meeting the job requirements. Promoting this discussion allows them to share what they think is feasible and what other external factors might be impacting their performance. If you continue to have performance issues while being compassionate and making the job requirements clear, you have given them the best chance for success. If they continue to be unable to meet the expectations of the position, you will at least know that you approached the situation in the best way possible.